FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER way back in to my childhood there have been a collection of cookery books that have sat neatly, satisfying the space of two bookshelves in my parents’ house. These books are three generations old now and (as I hope to divulge over the next few months) bursting full of secrets that belonged to my Grandmother. They go back to a just post-WW2 era, full of forgotten recipes intended for lavish parties, dinners, summer picnics and feasts where people took time over meals together; made an event out of eating. Something too easily forgotten in this day and age.
In 2000 they were packed into a box and we moved house. Although they reside in the kitchen no longer, the books stake their claim to the shelves in the dining room. One evening I think I was looking for a some gravy recipe or some such thing that was probably the topic of conversation over a Sunday dinner. And so I picked one up.
After leafing through each one, however, I came across more than just printed pages. In every book were notes scrawled in handwriting I recognised from my birthday cards of old. My Grandmother had left her own recipes along with receipts from fishmongers and markets, letters from friends and newspaper cuttings.
They may look old and tatty. For the decade that I grew up with them it was probably why they never inspired me. Antiques don’t generally inspire teenagers. But as my interest in cooking grew, and more recently with the birth of this blog, I’ve come back to them with a new found curiosity and the recipes Elise (my Grandmother) took the effort to archive. It would be nice, I thought, to revive these recipes and relive her cooking.
So the project I have set myself in order to step out of my cookery comfort zone and experiment with new things is this: I will try to recreate the dishes she has written down, collated, circled, underlined and anything that looks like she might have touched upon in and amongst these books. There is a list of canapés to snack through on a prep sheet from one of her dinner parties (she was the hostess of many). There are cocktails requiring obscure spirits. There are lavish Mediterranean dishes, fishes, meats as well as the richest sounding deserts to create from scratch. Not a stock cube nor a metric measurement in sight, or a microwave. Thank God.
All I have to do is follow in her footsteps… and recalculate her aga timings for my own little oven.. ~
ONE: The Chocolate Mousse
Here begins the first of many experiments that pertains to my Grandmother’s cookery books and to kick off, I thought I’d break in with the simplest looking thing I could find: a chocolate mousse.
Before I even begin there are already complications. She has in fact written a couple of recipes, well.. one and a half to be exact. First, a ‘Miner Creme Chocolate’, leafed between the Crème Renversée Caramel and the Petit Pots de Crème à l’Anglaise of French Cooking for the Home by Louis Diat, margined with a yellowing strip of sixty year old Sellotape. Secondly, a ‘Chocolate Sweet’ into the back pages of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cookbook with a few splatterings of ancient chocolate escapades.
Now perhaps because it is the middle of the week and my I’m not feeling my most adventurous tonight, I went for the simpler American choice. I will save the richer looking version for a weekend evening with dinner and test it out on friends.
So, the ingredients:
Miner Chocolate (1oz, per person)
Eggs (1 per person).
1 Tbsp water.
This is all.
Well, firstly what is this Miner chocolate? As the more complex recipe was named ‘Miner Creme Chocoalate’, I thought perhaps it was named after a friend from whom the recipe was received. But no, after a little research it was more likely to be Menier chocolate, a now non-existent make of French chocolate. Chocolat Menier was a french chocolate manufacturers that merged with Cacao Barry, later bought by Group Ufico-Perrier, which in turn was sold to Rowntree Mackintosh who then were acquired by Nestlé. Such is the fate of chocolatiers in this day and age. Therefore for I suppose ultimately, I should have used a bar of Nestlé chocolate – but when the only plain Nestlé branded chocolate that immediately comes to mind is Yorkie or Aero, the recipe feels suddenly lacking. These are not the sorts of chocolate you make deserts with.
So it was decided that Green and Blacks was the chocolate of choice for the first test. Exactly 1oz is half a bar.
The recipe instructions seemed simple.
Melt chocolate in pan with one tbsp water – add beaten egg yolks – Fold in whites.
Unfortunately, after melting the chocolate, adding the yolks and folding the whites (hand whisked, I’ll have you know) – I have to say I wondered what exactly I was to do next. Bake it? Chill it? After a quick cross reference with a few other modern recipes I figured that chilling it was the way to go.
90 minutes later and the experiment was complete, but for the tasting. In short: A surprisingly perfect texture for my first mousse. However, the lack of sugar was evident and the 70% cocoa solids choice of chocolate also. I think next time around, a bar of Galaxy perhaps – but I think the higher oil content would affect final consistency. Maybe instead: a dash of caster sugar and an extra tablespoon of water in the melting.
TWO: The Belgian Biscuit
In the back of ‘Great Dishes of the World’ by Robert Carrier I found a blank postcard and written in pencil was an apple crumble recipe, rice crispy recipe and an un-named recipe that sounded a bit like tiffin. So I believe that this is my Grandmother’s take on tiffin. I had never made it before this point, but it judging from the content of sweet things in the ingredients list – it didn’t exactly sound bad.
225g (or about half a packet) broken digestive biscuits
100g sultanas or any dried fruit
2 tbsp Golden Syrup
130g dark chocolate
Pieces of half an orange
This is all there is to making these sweet snack bars:
Melt the butter, syrup and chocolate over a bain-marie. Dark chocolate is best to counter the overall sweetness of the bars. If you want to make it interesting, splash a dash of rum! Add broken up biscuits and fruit. I added dates, raisins, apricots, cranberries and goji berries. Stir together and coat with the chocolate.
Pack into a lined tin (tin foil) and if you fancy, add the half orange pieces – pressing them into the top. Allow to chill and harden then turn out the slab and cut with a heavy knife into bars.
THREE: Stewed ORANGES
Here is a desert recipe Elise had scribbled into the pages Great Dishes of the World, by Robert Carrier. From the list of spices it sounded wintery. After tasting however, I think this is a desert that could offer itself very well after summer meals – the sharp sweet flavours are a nice refreshing end to a meal perhaps like a barbecue, and it is easy to prepare in advance.
1/2lb sugar (220g)
1/4 pt water (140ml)
1/4 pt Red Burgundy (140ml)
1 cinnamon stick
2 strips orange peel
2 strips lemon peel
Start by making the syrup base: warm the water over a flame and melt into the sugar. When the sugar is completely melted, combine the Burgundy wine (holding back about two tablespoons for later) and drop in the clove, cinnamon, and strips of orange and lemon peel. Simmer gently until it is reduced to a syrup. Add the reserved two tablespoons of Burgundy to loosen the syrup a little and increase the alcohol levels again.
Peel and slice the oranges and put into the warm syrup, then chill in the fridge before serving them with ice cream.
Home-made Vanilla Ice Cream
This is my variation on a recipe I found in the same book. I think there was more cocoa powder than printed word on these pages of deserts, so I will be trying them all out soon.
4 egg yolks
1 pinch salt
440ml single cream
1 tsp vanilla esscence
The seeds of a vanilla pod
290ml double cream, thickly whipped
Beat the egg yolks, sugar and salt until it turns a pale yellow colour. Heat the single cream to almost boiling and add to the eggs, whisking until mixture is well blended and no longer grainy. Pour the mixture into a ban-marie and cook over hot water, stirring continuously, until the consistency becomes custard-like and coats the spoon.
Stir in the vanilla pod seeds and essence, then allow to cool completely.
Once cool, stir in the thick double cream into the vanilla custard and freeze for at least 3 hrs.
FOUR: The SOUFFLÉ
There is a family story that tells of my Grandfather, Jim, dining at the Savoy in London and one evening ordering the soufflé for his desert. So unhappy was he, with what was served, that he wrote to the kitchen explain his disappointment. Unlike today’s apologetic vouchers or consolatory free meal, this was the 1940s and in order to settle the issue at hand he was invited back by the Head Chef to come back and make for them what he thought to be a good Soufflé.
He was known in the kitchen at home for making brilliant soufflés: delicate and airy lemon ones, incredible savoury gruyere cheese ones and a chocolate soufflé to die for. But I just cannot imagine a humble vicar of the Church of England standing before the professional kitchen of the London Savoy explaining what he thought to be the secret to a soufflé. Perhaps it was his station as a priest that allowed him get away with entry to such a kitchen and command an audience with such chefs.
It was a time where people were cutting corners in cookery. There was still food rationing in Britain which lasted nearly a decade after the war had ended. It took a while for people to come back around to fresh ingredients and more honourable cooking techniques.
Although I never saw him before his congregation (before whom, I am lead to believe, he was quite animated), I remember when I was a youngster that he carried himself with much stillness. So I permit myself to imagine that, at the moment of setting the soufflé down before the chefs, there was that same clear stillness in which you could hear a pin drop.
But I digress. In my Grandmother’s cookbooks of old, there are many handwritings but the ones that are always in fountain pen belong to Jim. A smaller jot, and a little more difficult to read when the ink marks have bled out into each other. But because his recipes are few and far between the pages of her collection and because I thought this story is so inspiring, when I came across a recipe for Grand Marnier Soufflé in my Grandfather’s pen – I couldn’t pass over it. I just had to give it a try.
1/2 pt milk
1 oz butter
3/4 oz fine white flour
3 yolks of egg
5 egg whites
1 liquor glass of Grand Marnier
Remove from the heat and as it cools add the glass of alcohol and then the beaten egg yolks. Beat well.
In to a clean bowl crack rest of the egg whites (five in total), leaving no trace of yolk or shell. Beat well until they are very stiff but not too dry. Introduce the whites, folding them gently into the main mixture.
Spoon the mixture very gently into some buttered soufflé ramekins. A trick to help them rise when baking is to run the tip of your finger around the edge between the soufflé mix and the ramekin wall, so that the top of the soufflé can rise evenly without sticking.
Place gently in a pre-heated oven at 190° for 16-18mins until the tops are risen and golden. Do not open the oven door before they are ready.
Dust with icing sugar, if you like, and serve immediately.
FIVE: Stuffed AUBERGINE
Leafing through my grandmother’s recipes again, I’ve been seeing a lot of anchovies, which, after deciding to cook every dish she has penned out, I didn’t really want to attempt. Anchovies: I didn’t really like them. I’m always avoiding them on pizzas or in anything really. But I do love aubergine – and for the sake of this dish, I decided to give anchovies another try.
I nibbled timidly at an oily fillet from one of those flat supermarket tins and I came to the conclusion that they were not that bad after all. Anchovies had made it my ‘Yes’ list. It must have been that clichéd general opinion of the offending fish that meant I never gave them any consideration.
Don’t let this happen to you. It is hardly as if most recipes ask you to eat them straight out of the tin. When you cook with them, they actually melt away into a nothingness and contribute an extra fullness in the overall flavour of a dish. Be it some sort of deep ragù or stuffed veg or mince meat dish, just a couple of small fillets can make a brilliant difference.
But back to the dish at hand: my grandmother’s stuffed aubergine. I have replaced her use of four tablespoons of breadcrumbs with a cup cous-cous, for more texture. Cous-cous was not a very popular ingredient in the post-war 1940’s. Instant cous-cous was probably hard to come by, if in existence at all and she would have had to steam her cous-cous pearls instead of just adding hot water. But feel free to use either.
2 finely chopped anchovy fillets
Chopped fresh parsley
2 ripe tomatos
6 chopped green olives
1 cup cous-cous
Preheat the oven to 200°. Cut and hollow out 2 inch sections of aubergines and sit in a small roasting pan. For the filling, pour 1 cup of boiling water onto 1 cup of cous-cous and stir. Leave covered for a few minutes to allow the water to be absorbed – it doesn’t have to be completely cooked it will continue cooking in the oven. Dice up the ripe tomatoes and mix with the chopped olives, anchovy filets parsley and plenty of freshly milled black pepper. Add the cous-cous and mix really well. Then stuff the hollowed aubergines.
Drizzle with a little olive oil and top with grated parmesan for a cheesy crust. Bake in the oven for half an hour.
Serve as a side to a meaty dish, or as a meal with a little salad. ~
SIX: Summer SALAD No.1
My Grandmother loved a chicory salad, often adding lengths of celery for crunch and apple slices for a contrasting sweetness. Here’s the recipe:
3 tips of chicory (red or green)
1 large head of celery
1 apple (Cox variety is a nice choice or any other eating apple)
1/2 a cup of walnuts
Parsley to garnish
For a very simple French dressing (optional)
2 parts good olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar.
You may add a teaspoon of whole grain mustard to every cup of French dressing made if you fancy an extra kick, a splash of apple juice to sweeten or even both.
Split off the chicory leaves and place in a bowl along with thin slices of apple and similar sized lengths of celery. Then if you wish, toss through a little French dressing (nothing too strong). Garnish with walnuts and parsley.
Serve immediately. Preparing this salad beforehand will result in the chicory and apples browning in the open air.
I love this recipe because it is so versatile. It goes well with barbecued chicken kebabs and flat breads, or a cold roast beef platter. Chicory is also a great braised. Slice the tips roughly in half at an angle and brush with a bit of oil, before placing on a griddle briefly with a bit of onion or under a direct flame in grill or over a barbecue. Like this, chicory tips are a fantastic accompaniment with a chunky bit of pan-fried fish steak or fish en papillote.
So think about giving your self a challenge one day next week with a fruit or vegetable that you’ve always wondered about, but hesitated to buy at the supermarket. You never know what you might enjoy. ~
SEVEN: Summer SALAD No.2
On the same page with that chicory salad was this: a fresh salad idea for summer barbecues or garden suppers. Best served ice cold and with fresh mint, she wrote that it goes really well with full flavoured cold meats such as duck or lamb.
Melon (1 per every two people)
1/2 a stalk of grapes (try to buy seedless unless you are wiling to deseed them before serving)
Mint (6 sprigs)
Crushed Roasted Almonds (optional)
For the dressing:
White Wine Vinegar
Extra Virgin olive oil
Pinch of Salt
Ground white pepper
1 tsp sugar
Prepare the dressing by mixing two parts extra virgin olive oil (the nicest you can find) to one part white wine vinegar. Then squeeze in some lemon juice and add a pinch of salt, white pepper and sugar to taste. I use white pepper, just for aesthetics. That way, there are no questionable specks of black pepper across the salad. If you do not want to be fussy – by all means use ground black pepper. Segment the ice-cold melon and remove the seeds. Proceed to cut the crescents into thin slices. Arrange the melon on a serving platter. Scatter over the de-seeded halves of red grapes.
Drizzle a little dressing over the salad, and garnish with torn sprigs of mint (Moroccan mint or apple mint provide refreshing contrasts to the sweet melon) and some crushed almonds for crunch.
If you are serving a few people, mix it up with a variety of melons – a cantaloupe, galia, and honeydew for an assortment of colour.